July 3, 2016
Please pray with me – May the words I speak reach hearts that need to hear them, may the thoughts I share inspire thoughts of your own, and may all of us share in this time of learning and reflecting, recognizing the presence and grace of God among us all. Amen.
Today, I begin a 10-week sermon series inspired by the stained glass windows in this church. Last Sunday, I was here to share in worship with you. Rev. Trent invited me to take part in the service of baptism and as I sat here at the front listening to his sermon I felt what I call, “A tap on the shoulder”. It’s not an actual tap, but it feels kind of like that. You know that tap – when someone has been trying to get your attention and eventually they feel the need to touch you so you know that they are there. When you feel that, you can’t help but stop listen to them. That’s what happened last Sunday. I felt that tap and it said, “look around you” and there I saw 5 beautiful stained glass windows. I assumed that the other side also had 5. I was inspired! 5 + 5 is 10 and I was going to be here for 10 weeks. I knew I was supposed to preach from your windows. I didn’t know why, but one thing I have learned is that when I feel that tap on my shoulder, it is a good sign. So far, it hasn’t steered me wrong. I don’t always like where it leads me (like into discernment and a completely changing the path of my life!), but it is always good and I always learn something that I want to share with others. So here we are…
After the service, I told Rev. Trent of my inspiration and he pointed out that there are only 4 stained glass windows on the other side. So, this morning I’m starting with one of the taller windows here at the front. The window this morning was placed in memory of John Fitzgerald Stairs by his widow in 1909. He died in 1904 at the young age of 56. Mr. Stairs served in all levels of government, was the president of many companies and an advocate for business here in the Maritimes. He was also a pillar of what was then known as Fort Massey Presbyterian Church. He was the superintendent of Sunday school from 1888 to 1894 and again from 1896. He was elected as an elder in 1903 and was president of the Nova Scotia Sunday School Association at the time of his death.
The window itself is based on Matthew 25:40 – I love the old language of the King James Version: “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.” The window depicts a man surrounded by angels giving a woman a drink. This passage is from a longer section that represents the conclusion of a number of parables that speak of the time when Christ will come again after the Resurrection. In Greek, this is known as the Parousia. New Testament scholars are divided on whether this concept concerns one final time of judgment or if it speaks of any time that Christ reveals himself after his death. The story told here Matthew 25, as we read this morning appears to point to a specific time at the expected day of judgment and echoes the visions of the prophet Daniel found in the Hebrew Bible.
I admit that I struggle with this passage and maybe you do too. I struggle with it because its setting places it clearly in the context of a consequentialist God who doles out punishments and rewards based on a judgment. This passage is uncomfortable and disturbing for me because it seems to lack the element of Grace. Grace is integral to my understanding of the unconditionally loving and forgiving of the God that I have come to know. Even here though, we can find Grace if we seek it. Wait for it….
This scripture promises eternal life for some and for others it threatens eternal fire. It talks of the Devil and all his angels. This story is about good and it is about evil. And both exist – not just at the end of time – they exist in the here and now. I believe that the message in this scripture is less about promising what happens at the day of judgment (that may or may not happen) and is instead a lesson for how we should live life today. I can’t think of a place in the bible that is more specific in it’s instructions about HOW God expects us to behave and WHY.
For most of us, a good story has a protagonist and an antagonist, it has tension, it has a climax and it has a point. For me, what has always mattered in a story is not necessarily the style in which the story is told, but rather, I am always really interested in what the story is trying to tell me. In this tale of throne room of the mighty Kingdom of God, we find the Son of Man. From other stories of our faith we know that this is one of the names for Jesus. Here in this mythical room ALL the nations of the world, all the people that are and ever were appear before the mighty King. They have come to find out who will inherit the kingdom of God and thus live an eternal life and who will not. Then there is a confusing bit about sheep and goats. I don’t know about you, but a throne room seems like a strange place to find a shepherd…. or is it a King?
In R.T. France’s commentary on the Book of Matthew, I read that in ancient times sheep and goats were herded together and it was customary to divide them at times although it was not clear why. In this story, I interpret this to mean that while on earth we are all “in it” together. Some are like goats and some are like sheep and it is not always easy to tell us apart. It takes the shepherd to really know the truth of who we are. These pastoral images don’t make a whole lot of sense to us today or even thrown into the middle of a throne-room story, but they don’t have to. The sorting is less important here than the reasons given for what separates the sheep from the goats according to Matthew’s vision of the day of judgment. Those that are chosen to inherit the kingdom of God, here represented by the sheep at the right hand, those that are declared righteous and worthy, are those that treated other people with respect, with kindness and with love. HOW did they do that? Specifically, when they saw someone was hungry – they fed them, when they met a stranger they made them a friend, when they saw that someone needed clothes – they clothed them, when someone was sick – they took care of them, when someone was in prison – they took the time to visit them. Jesus says that every time they did these things they were doing it for him. And here is the crux of the story in my opinion. The reason WHY they did these things is REALLY important. It mattered to Jesus because it matters to God. The people didn’t do what they did to impress Jesus or to win favour with God. They did it simply because it was the right thing to do. In the ultimate expression of love – they did these things because they lived in the teaching that says, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
When they saw someone suffering they felt empathy and their hearts demanded that they ease the suffering of others. This is the true meaning of compassion – “to-suffer-with”. They didn’t help for their own well-being, they didn’t do it for a reward, they didn’t do it because they were afraid of being punished if they didn’t do it – no, they did it because they loved their fellow human beings. It’s easy to love those who are like us, but if we truly believe that we are all made in the image of God, then we must love like God and God surely loves ALL God’s children! The gospel of John does a great job of reminding us that Christ lives in us – he lives in all of us – even those that are hungry, even those that are in prison, even those that are naked…. Christ lives in the marginalized. Christ will live in you if you live in him and to live in him means to love others as God has loved you – without fear and without conditions.
Now here is the part I love about this story the most. We could easily get caught up in the end of the story when we learn what happens to the ‘bad guys’. It is all so dramatic – there is eternal fire, there is the Devil and his angels….it is dark and it is scary! It is so Hollywood, right? There is a great satisfaction in the movies and stories when the emperor gets what’s coming to him at the end of The Return of the Jedi, or when Inigo Montoya finally sticks it to the six-fingered man in The Princess Bride, or what about the death of Malificent at Prince Phillip’s sword in Sleeping Beauty? We all love a classic good-beats-evil conclusion, don’t we? It ties the story up so nicely.
What’s really great about Matthew 25 is this – our story isn’t over! And it ain’t over until it IS and until then — we will NEVER know what happens. Although this story tells us what happened to those that turned their backs on their fellow human beings and let them suffer, that time hasn’t happened yet (if it will at all). I don’t know what the bible means by eternal fire anymore than I understand what it means about eternal life. I can’t know these things – they are unknowable in this life. I can guess, but I can’t know. All the stories about what will happen, when it will happen and who it will happen to, are just that – stories. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t relevant. There is a great first line among some First Nations storytellers that goes something like this, “I do not know if the story I am about to tell is true, but I do know that it contains the truth.” That’s how I read these stories of Jesus. I read them and I look for the truth that they reveal to me. The truth I hear in today’s story is this: God wants us to live a life in concern for each other. When we see suffering, we are called to action. Even though the suffering in the world seems insurmountable most of the time, we make a difference when we treat one person with compassion. When we practice compassion and empathy it becomes who we are, it gets in our bones. We are called to love each other – that’s it. That means that we can do that together with all our brothers and sisters who are also doing God’s work in the world whether they call it that or not. God doesn’t care that we know WHY we are doing good in the world. God only cares that we ARE doing good in the world.
So DO GOOD my friends. Trust me – it is more contagious than scaring people into being good with threats of fire and hell or promises of fluffy clouds and pearly gates. Here is where I see the Grace in the message – Do good because God MADE you good and God sent Jesus to SHOW you how to express this innate goodness! Every day is an opportunity to turn to the life and example of Jesus Christ. When we do we he will show us again and again and again how to live in accordance to God’s will. Take care of each other my brothers and sisters. Be kind to the stranger. Fill your lives with love and compassion. Find ways to help so that when people come to know you, they also come to know the love of Christ. So, the next time you feel “a tap on the shoulder” – stop and listen. Someone is trying to get your attention. Don’t turn your back on suffering. Instead, turn your face to God and let Christ be your light – and trust that it is a light that leads you to life full of Love. Thanks be to God.